Residents wanted 'low traffic' streets. They got a neighbourhood war
Inside the bitter row that has divided Levenshulme
Good morning Millers — Levenshulme’s ‘low traffic neighbourhood’ initiative was supposed to be a shining example of how Greater Manchester’s streets can become less dominated by cars. In its early days, the project excited many residents and won acclaim and even awards from experts and environmentalists.
So why are things now so tense in the neighbourhood that every second person interviewed by The Mill for this piece asked not to be named?
Andrea Sandor has been reporting this story for six months and has spoken to most of the key players in the scheme, either on the record or off it. In this report, she asks: What went wrong in Levenshulme? And what can we learn from it?
The photography in this story is by Dani Cole, who also contributed additional reporting.
By Andrea Sandor
For years councillor Dzidra Noor had been trying to secure funding to improve roads in Levenshulme. She was particularly concerned about Broom Lane, where speeding has been a problem and serious accidents have taken place. But she was consistently knocked back — the funds simply weren’t available.
Then the Mayor’s Challenge Fund came on board and with it the opportunity to bid for projects to increase safe walking and cycling in neighbourhoods. Noor held an engagement event about the bid in autumn 2018, and several local residents expressed an interest in working on it. Locals engaging with local groups seemed like a perfect approach to Noor. “I wanted this to be community-led,” she says, “It’s your street, you decide.”
A team was assembled around the residents, which included the council’s Highways department, Transport for Greater Manchester, Chris Boardman’s team, and the cycling charity Sustrans. Noor couldn’t attend the project meetings because they met during the day when she was at work. Although reluctant to step back from the project — it felt like her “baby” — she felt it was right for her to take a backseat. “I thought it was in good hands,” she says.
And so it seemed to be. In March 2019 the team successfully won the bid to create the region’s first fully filtered low traffic neighbourhood or LTN. Later that year the project won the national ‘Community Project of the Year’ Award at the Healthy Streets Summit in Glasgow. Hailed as a ‘pioneering’ ‘community-led’ ‘flagship’ project, Levenshulme Bee Network — as the project was called — appeared to be a model of ‘co-production’, where citizens are involved in the creation of public policy.
But within a year of winning the award, Manchester City Council would end its partnership with the Levenshulme Bee Network. In the midst of the pandemic, fierce local opposition had broken out against the plans. Despite holding numerous engagement events and distributing thousands of flyers, many locals said they’d never heard of the project and never had a say.
When the low traffic neighbourhood trial began in earnest last month, it immediately descended into deep rancour and unpleasantness. Planters meant to act as traffic filters were shoved over in the middle of the night, and the police were called. Local Facebook groups lit up with angry messages.
What had begun as a ‘community-led’ project was now tearing the community apart.
‘An inspiring example’
“Levenshulme is hoping to become the most cycle-friendly place in Greater Manchester by creating its first ‘fully filtered’ neighbourhood,” the Manchester Evening News reported almost exactly two years ago. “And it’s Levy’s residents who are leading the way.”
The story explained that the Levenshulme Bee Network was coordinated by volunteer Pauline Johnston, with support from councillors. “It’s all about safety - getting from A to B — but also issues like improved air quality,” Johnston was quoted saying, pointing out that “Levenshulme is three-times the legal limit outside primary schools, which needs to change.”
The idea behind low traffic neighbourhood schemes is to create safer walking and cycling links between homes, shops, and schools. To do this, filters — ranging from bollards to planters — are placed in strategic locations on residential roads to block through-traffic while still allowing vehicle access to every home.
Government data shows traffic on residential roads in the North West has increased 47% in the past decade, in part due to GPS apps routing traffic down quieter streets to shave off a few minutes from journey times. Low traffic neighbourhoods are part of a strategy to enable more shorter journeys by walking and cycling; in Greater Manchester, for example, 30% of journeys under 1km are currently driven.
In the MEN story, Johnston is pictured smiling at the camera. It’s a sunny day and she’s wearing a hard hat, standing near scaffolding off the derelict Levenshulme South station. As well as coordinating the Levenshulme Bee Network, Johnston was also heading up the Station South project to renovate the defunct 1892 building into a family-friendly cafe and cycling hang out. Her involvement in that project would become significant as bad feeling over the low traffic neighbourhood flared.
A month later, in March 2019, the team was successfully awarded £2.5 million, with Manchester City Council contributing an additional £100,000 towards the project. Johnston was formally contracted as the project coordinator, loosely supported by a team of local volunteers.
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Manchester City Council was an enthusiastic partner in the project. “This is an inspiring example of a resident led, ground-up approach where local people are putting forward their ideas on how to tackle issues on their doorstep,” said the council’s executive member for transport and environment Angeliki Stogia when the Bee Network won the award in Glasgow.
When the pandemic hit, public transport use plummeted. Last May, the government issued statutory guidance to local authorities to turn over road space to pedestrians and cyclists, and made funds available. A number of projects were identified across the country to be fast-tracked, including Levenshulme’s low traffic neighbourhood. It seemed an ideal project to bring in when traffic levels were still so low.
The way consultation on an LTN works is different from other types of schemes, where consultation happens before a scheme is introduced. Instead, LTN’s are brought in on a trial basis for 6 to 18 months. During this time residents have a chance to offer feedback on the road filters, which can be modified in real-time. If a particular filter isn’t working well, it can be removed. At the end of the trial period, the filters can be made permanent or removed.
Greater Manchester’s cycling commissioner Chris Boardman positions trials as ‘Try before you buy’. For the trial to work it needs to be in place for at least six months to see if it has changed behaviour. When disquiet began to bubble up in Levenshulme, Boardman tweeted: “Message to all LTN haters (I appreciate not many of you) Most of these are TRIALS Have you really got so much to lose that you can’t even try...?”
Levenshulme Bee Network @LevyBeelinesVery chuffed to receive the brilliant @s4plb posters in support our our active neighbourhood and the #LowTrafficNeighbourhood trials! Full of facts! Great to see positivity shining through on what is, I still believe a brilliant opportunity for us all. Let’s do it #levenshulme https://t.co/7kRn4XfrWQ
Trials are well-suited to road plans aimed at discouraging car use, which are often unpopular when announced. For example, the UK’s first fully filtered neighbourhood in Waltham Forest in London was opposed by 41% before the trial; now fewer than 2% say they would remove the filters.
But the opposition in the run-up to a trial can be unnerving. In Waltham Forest, protests were held, including a funeral for the high street. The Levenshulme Bee Network had anticipated, despite their best efforts, that there would be a backlash. From the start, councillors were told to expect protests but to stand firm.
At the end of May, the map of filters was published based on the feedback from the earlier engagement activities, and the trial was announced to start in July. But it wasn’t an easy time to deliver the project. Because of the pandemic, the map was only published online. The Levenshulme Bee Network said that created a “communication gap” that was filled by misinformation on social media.
It was an especially difficult time for Johnston to coordinate the project. She became a new mum just before the pandemic and worked through her maternity leave to bring forward the plans. So when the backlash came, it was chaotic.
Those who have raised concerns about aspects of the LTN trial – such as the location of planters and the extent of research conducted prior to its implementation – have been shouted down or branded ‘child killers’, ‘climate change deniers’ and ‘car gammons’. At the same time, those who openly support the scheme have in turn been called ‘hippies’ and ‘tree huggers’. Oh and they got called ‘child killers’ too.
The framing of the project as ‘community-led’ obscured the role of the council, and attacks were directed at Johnston and the resident volunteers. Furthermore, it meant people who hadn’t heard of the plans were perceived to be shut out. It begged the question — who was the ‘community’?
‘I was naive’
Jane says the plans for a filtered neighbourhood were sprung on her unawares. That’s not her real name. When I spoke to her for the first time in September last year, she was happy to speak on the record, but now she’s not. “I’ve been subjected to some pretty serious abuse,” she says, including being threatened in the street. “They know where I live. It’s shaken me,” she adds.
One of her concerns about the scheme was that it would push traffic out onto her road. She was also worried that many people weren’t aware of the scheme, including older people and residents who don’t read or speak English. “On the right of me lives an old couple and on the left a couple who don’t speak English and neither of them knew about it,” she told The Mill.
Jane joined some other residents and mobilised opposition to the scheme. A closed Facebook group called ‘Unfiltered streets’ was set up, as well as a WhatsApp group chat. Flyers were printed and translated into different languages and delivered to households in the area. “I just want everyone to be informed,” she says.
She grew up in Levenshulme and moved away from the neighbourhood to pursue her professional career before returning. She and her daughter live not far from her mum, who also fiercely opposes the LTN. In her mind, the scheme appeared to be championed by some of the newcomers who moved into the area as house prices rose in neighbourhoods like Didsbury and Chorlton.
Jane says she feels equally comfortable going to trendy bakeries like Trove, as well as places like the Irish cafe that have been around for years. But that’s not true of everyone she knows, and she’s concerned some residents with less financial and cultural capital are increasingly ignored.
Levenshulme’s adoption by the middle classes has been widely noted in the media. Under “Why we love it” the Sunday Times wrote: “Good old gentrification is alive and kicking.” The article crassly summarised how the neighbourhood has changed. “In a few short years, ‘Levy’ has gone from fake Adidas tracksuits and knock-off trainers to hand-knitted jumpers and home-baked vegan buns sold in the independent market.”
Alongside plans for a microbrewery and food hall, the newspaper name-checks the project Johnston was photographed working on: the long-shuttered Victorian Levenshulme South railway station, which is “being turned into a community hangout.”
Levy is much loved by many of its residents, who say it has a nice mix of communities living alongside each other. But of course, rapid change can cause tensions to bubble up. “I guess I was naive,” says Noor. She was under the impression the area was relatively harmonious, citing the example of the Levenshulme Bee from a few years ago, when different neighbourhoods were given a bee to decorate. While in some areas the bee was vandalised, in Levenshulme it was left untouched.
When it was removed for cleaning, she got numerous concerned messages from residents wanting to know what had happened to the bee. The vitriol that took place over social media in reaction to the low traffic neighbourhood shattered her image of the neighbourhood as cohesive and unified.
Last July, the Levenshulme Bee Network released a statement:
For the past six weeks, we have come in for a lot of abuse, some of it personal, some of it libellous, often defamatory. Members of the Levenshulme Bee Network team have been subject to threatening behaviour, including one member having to be warned that people were knocking on doors asking for their home address and others demanding the removal of people from their posts.
Johnston and the other advocates for the LTN found themselves fielding a PR crisis that had become personally centred on them. By not clarifying its central role in the project, the council had left local residents open to attack. Opponents had begun to zero in on perceived personal motivations for the project, suggesting that the backers of the Station South initiative were using it to drive more footfall to their project.
“As with any political issue these days we’re all shouting at each other,” says Tom Haines-Doran, chairman of the Streets for People group that was set up to support the project. He moved to Levenshulme around a decade ago and is often bracketed with the gentrifiers, perhaps on account of his job as an academic.
“What hurt most was the assumption of bad faith of people like myself,” he says. When you start from that basis, it’s very difficult to convince people otherwise.” Haines-Doran describes how tense things became, walking down the street, not knowing if someone walking past him was the person who had been attacking him on Facebook. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
As online opposition mounted, councillors fielded questions online based on their uneven understanding of the project, giving different answers. “Our answers were cross analysed,” Noor says, so she decided to step back from social media.
Then an announcement came from the Levenshulme Bee Network, published on its website, saying Manchester City Council had ended the partnership. The council said the trial was being paused and more engagement would take place.
“I have no idea who made the decision,” Noor says. When pushed by residents — via Freedom of Information requests — for documents that explained the basis for the decision, a council officer wrote back: “The decision to remove the Levenshulme Bee Network and pause the project was taken by Members and officers verbally.”
A spokesman for the council told The Mill: “The scheme was initially proposed as a community-led initiative, with the council providing support to the Levenshulme Bee Network team. It is unacceptable for any individual to face abuse during their work or voluntary activities and we condemn any such behaviour unreservedly.”
They added: “The council is now conducting the six-month trial of phase one of the scheme and continues to seek feedback from all members of the community in the process.”
12 weeks passed without any further engagement. “The council have missed an opportunity to engage with the community,” Jane told me when we spoke in mid-September. “It’s the council’s responsibility to bring the community back together.” The other side wasn’t happy with the council either. “We feel we’ve been shunned by our councillors,” Tom told me at the time.
By late September, the council had relaunched the LTN with a new project manager. It was decided to split the project into two phases, essentially starting with the Levenshulme area in Phase 1, and then the Burnage area in Phase 2.
A trial for Phase 1 in Levenshulme was eventually scheduled for early January when the official consultation was to begin, including 14 filters instead of 25 (the original plan had been 29) and new crossings added to the plan. The Phase 2 trial in Burnage is set to commence this spring.
Despite two-thirds of responses to the engagement being supportive of the scheme, the bitterest contention was still to come.
The moment of truth
The planters on Delamere Road seemed to appear out of nowhere. Cars, suddenly faced with an unexpected obstruction, mounted rain-wet pavements in a bid to get past. There were no “Road Closed” signs or information posters, contributing to the confusion. The planters quickly became a flashpoint for frustrations to spill into the streets.
Around midnight on January 4th, several were tipped over. They were unanchored to the road. Though moveable, they were solid and cumbersome and required considerable force to shift.
Rumours circulated that heavy machinery, a forklift truck, was involved. People who attempted to identify the culprits on Facebook were met with hostility. “Fucking snitch it was me who moved it,” one user posted. “Snitches get stitches,” another commented. “Who are these fucking pricks dictating the streets of Leve?”
Then, a few days later after one person tagged Manchester City Council in a video of a motorist ramming their car into a planter, which was still unbolted, they were subjected to abuse. “GRASS”, one user wrote.
“Me and my neighbours were really excited about the scheme,” said one resident who didn’t want to be named. They had posted positive messages about it on Facebook last year as the controversy had arisen and received nasty private messages from trolls and anonymous accounts.
On the night that the planters had been vandalised, despite the threats and abuse, they went out to help fix things. In the darkness, illuminated under the hard, florescent light of streetlamps, they started shovelling the soil back into the planters. Word went around about what had happened and slowly a trickle of neighbours from surrounding streets pitched in to help. They heard of another location where the planters had been vandalised — the group made their way over.
On social media, the tenor of the conversation about Levenshulme’s LTN was back to its toxic worst. On top of the usual insults, posts appeared on Facebook alleging that the installation of the planters had disrupted the emergency services, with one report that a fire engine had to reroute.
The council maintains that “all sectors of the community had a chance to take part,” in the consultation, and says information booklets were sent to more than 10,400 households, prompting 3,500 responses. It says there were eight online consultation events. A spokesman added: “The project has a Project Manager, communications team and design team, all of whom attended the online meetings, along with support from the council's local Neighbourhood team.”
Yet the confusion around the planters in early January suggests that people had fallen through an information gap.
When we visited Levenshulme last week to take pictures and interview residents about the latest developments, we saw plenty of signs attesting to the polarisation caused by the trial. On one abandoned shopfront someone has added a new sign: “STOP THE ROAD BLOCKS” it says. “STOP INEQUALITY ON UNFILTERED ROADS.” A laminated sign nearby says “Cul-de-sacs for the few” and “Say no to road blocks”.
Some residents have pro-LTN posters in their windows. In the bay window of a semi-detached house, a green leaflet says: “YES TO ACTIVE NEIGHBOURHOOD TRIALS NOW.”
“It’s shambolic,” says Jane. A group she is part of has been accused of tipping over the planters in the middle of the night, which she says they weren’t involved in. The Mill understands the police have been called on at least two occasions.
“It’s been awful, absolutely awful,” she says. “It’s really created a divide between the hippies who will stroll around with their cargo bikes and the normal working class long-term Levenshulme residents that just want to see the potholes and pavements improved.”
Jane says that she and some of her neighbours resent the “lovely quiet streets” where the planters have gone in. “Those are million-pound houses. Those people who live there are predominately white middle class — and the traffic will end up on those roads that border the scheme.” It should be noted that a study published last year found “no clear social equity problem related to LTNs”.
The class dimensions of the row over the LTN have always been visible, somewhere just below the surface. Now they are explicit as could be.
“Why do the children who live in the enclaves that have been created, why are those children more important than the children who don’t live in those newly filtered streets?” asks Jane. She says she joined a webinar to engage local businesses about the LTN, and noticed an imbalance in the attendees. “Every single person on that call was white and middle class and were from places like Levenshulme Market,” she says. “There wasn't anyone who owned a takeaway shop or on Stockport Rd, there was no one from the BAME community.”
She doesn’t blame the pro-LTN residents for what’s gone wrong, though. “All of this falls on absolute incompetence on the council’s end really,” she says. “And it’s polarised now in the community. I don't think anyone’s going to change their mind about how they feel about these plant pots. Either you’re on one side or you’re on the other, and I don’t know how to fix that.”
How has it impacted her feelings about the neighbourhood she’s lived in for many years? “I’d consider moving from the area if things don’t improve, it’s that bad,” she says. “I don’t like what this scheme has done to my community.”
Noor is more optimistic. She agrees the community is divided on the scheme but thinks support is growing. “We get emails from both sides,” she explains, “We probably have more emails in support. People are warming up.”
The picture being painted of universal opposition from less affluent families on boundary roads is too simplistic she says, insisting that she sees a more nuanced picture from her residents. Air quality monitors and traffic counters have been installed to assess the impact on some of the roads in question.
She also warns against relying on social media too much as a metric of resident sentiment, explaining that she receives emails from people who aren’t on social media, or who are concerned about voicing their opinions in public for fear of being attacked.
Advocates for the LTN are sounding more upbeat about the trial, while also trying to learn the lessons from the chaos of the past year. One lesson most people agree on is that councils need to be more visible and be prepared for the kinds of backlash LTNs can generate. They point to the success of a smaller scheme in Salford, where the city-mayor publicly backs active travel projects.
Some people in Levenshulme reach reflexively for military metaphors when describing the local battles over the low traffic neighbourhood. But Noor chooses a more positive one. “You know when you go hiking, it looks quite scary and it’s quite hard to get to the top? But once at the top it’s worth it, the view from the top will be greater.”
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Coming up on The Mill: Andrea Sandor, who reported this story, speaks to experts about the future of LTN schemes in Greater Manchester, and the lessons from Levenshulme. That members’ story is coming soon.
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Original photography and additional reporting by The Mill’s Dani Cole.
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